Uncertainty remains over school choice legislation in Texas Capitol

AUSTIN, Texas - There still remains some uncertainty for school choice legislation as the third special session is winding down.

"What's different is that the folks, the workers outside the Capitol, have some certainty about the outcome of their work," said Harvey Kronberg with the Quroum Report.

The uncertainty, according Kronberg, remains to be about school choice. With time on the third session winding down, school choice legislation is already being reworked. It's success, or failure, Kronberg told FOX 7 Austin, may hinge on a single word: trust.

"I think it comes back to a matter of trust. Right now, we're sitting on a massive budget surplus and we can theoretically fund everything. But as the country appears to be on the edge of some kind of recession, we don't know how that's going to impact Texas," said Kronberg.

As tour groups visited empty House and Senate chambers, Paul Gauthier was walking the legislative hallways with one word in mind: hope.

"I'm here to save public education, and the only way to save public education is through school choice," said Gauthier.

Gauthier, is a Leander ISD school board member. He was hoping to meet with lawmakers from rural parts of Texas. He was hoping to convince them not to worry about the money that’s needed to fund a school voucher plan. Gauthier believes competition will make public schools better.

"My hope is that we get past the money. My hope is that we get past the people scrambling like crabs in a bucket, they won't let anybody else out, because everyone will be scrambling to get that money. We need to get the kids the focus that they deserve, and that's simply about reading, writing and arithmetic," said Gauthier.

The "saving school" pitch is one Kronberg has heard before, and it's not exclusive to the GOP.

"In 1995, there was a voucher movement sponsored by Liberal Democrats Institute, and they actually sent people down to Austin, and they had a major educational session with a lot of lawmakers and staffers present. And it was their whole premise was competition in schools directed towards underprivileged. That was kind of the threshold. And ironically, Texas Public Policy Foundation was very supportive. But the rhetoric has changed pretty dramatically since then. It's no longer about underserved students or for students. It's essentially an alternative to public education. And then if we had an $8,000 scholarship. Now, my bet is that the urban and suburban private schools that charge $25,000 in two years would be charging $33,000 because people are going to pull their kids out of school." said Kronberg.

The lack of trust among political leaders has sidetracked more than school choice. House Speaker Dade Phelan issued a statement criticizing the Senate for not passing HB 4, which allows local authorities to arrest undocumented migrants. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick blamed the Speaker for not passing the Senate's school choice and teacher pay plans.

"We had talked at the ‘This Week in Politics’ a couple of weeks ago. Remember when Abbott said he was at the one-yard line, and he's still there, and he's out of downs," said Brian Smith, with St. Edward's University.

The question now is when will Governor Abbott try again. A call for a fourth special session could come before the end of the week.

Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, who is sick with pneumonia, has suggested coming back in February. Waiting would provide time for lawmakers to cool off and draft a better proposal. Smith warns there is a ballot box risk in waiting.

"So these people don't want to be worried about legislating and running at the exact same time. They want to have something wrapped up before Christmas so that way they can turn their attention full time to the primaries," he said. "There's going to be a lot of interesting primaries simply because we know a lot of Republicans are going to be challenged from the right. And any time that happens, it means that races get to be very interesting."

While school choice is likely dead for now, there is an outside chance HB 4, the House border security bill, could get passed late Tuesday by the Senate. The odds are slim, according to Kronberg, for a Tuesday save, but a reboot will have a better chance.

"That was a very punitive Bill that passed out of the House at the in the final hours of this last session. And with the lieutenant governor getting sick they couldn't take it up in the Senate. The one thing Republicans universally fear is their primary voters on the border, on border issues. And increasingly, Democrats are beginning to worry about that issue. Also, not just Democrats in Texas, but national Democrats believe that Biden needs to take the president. Biden needs to take additional action. I think that the final bill is going to come out looking pretty much like the one that came out of the House, which was essentially the governor's bill. And it was such a punitive bill that even the bill author, if you stayed up until three in the morning watching it as he fought off one amendment after another, some of which were highly rational and would have actually expedited things. But he wanted to keep it clean because that's what the governor wanted. My suspicion is that it will, when he calls us back, which presumably is Wednesday or Thursday or Friday, that the Senate is going to pass something that resembles very much. It's hard to get much more punitive than that Bill was," said Kronberg.